Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 7th February 2021
Readings: Job 7:1-4,6-7; Psalm 147:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19,22-23; Mark 1:29-39
What do you think of, if I say the word duty?
Perhaps if you were a scout, you might think of the Scout Promise, to do your duty to God and to the Queen.
In the middle of the last century, the archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a document on what they called the duties of Church Membership. And they called on all baptised and confirmed Christians:
To follow the example of Christ in home and daily life, and to bear personal witness to Him.
To be regular in private prayer day by day.
To read the Bible carefully.
To come to Church every Sunday.
To receive the Holy Communion faithfully and regularly.
To give personal service to Church, neighbours, and community.
To give money for the work of parish and diocese and for the work of the Church at home and overseas.
To uphold the standard of marriage entrusted by Christ to His Church.
To care that children are brought up to love and serve the Lord.
Nowadays we don’t talk about duty so much, I don’t think. When I was a scout, not so many years ago, it was never explained to me what my duty to God was, much less my duty, as a fifteen year-old, to the Queen. And the Church of England has also stopped talking so much about the duties of Christians, at least in the concrete way they did sixty years ago.
We now talk about the reasons to come to church – we say, “I come to church because it grounds me for the week,” “I pray because it gives me peace.”
Our talk of duty is one much less well defined.
St. Paul saw it as his duty to preach the Gospel, as we heard in our second reading. He says that he didn’t choose the work – he was called to it by God. In other words, whether he wanted to or not, it was what he had to do. The only reward he says he gets is that people receive the Good News without any charge – it’s given away for free.
Of course, we know that St. Paul regarded preaching as his joy as well as his duty – elsewhere in the Bible he talks about the great joy he gets when people turn to follow Christ. He calls the churches he writes to his children.
Jesus, too, had a duty. “That is why I came,” he says about his preaching mission. That was his duty to his Heavenly Father, who had sent him to preach and to bring the good news. And his duty was to the people he met, too – he saw them as sheep without a shepherd, and so he – the good shepherd – had the duty to care for them, as he did for Simon’s mother-in-law.
One example of duty we have seen in our own day is Captain Sir Tom Moore, who died this week. One year ago many of us had not heard of him. Here was a man who had already lived a full life and done many things as his duty – not least serving in the British Army during the Second World War. When he took up his laps of his garden, it was not a duty impressed on him by anyone else, but one he took up of his own free will.
In our first reading, Job asks, “Is not man’s life on earth nothing more than pressed service, his time no better than hired drudgery?” Captain Tom would have disagreed. Certainly we can think of duty as the sort of thing Job describes: toiling on for ever thinking only of our wage – we can think of it as something we do only because we are forced to.
I know I felt that way when, as a twelve year-old, I was made to get up each Sunday to walk to Church!
When we do our Christian duty though, it’s never about doing the bare minimum to get by, with a scowl, because we feel we have to.
Duty is a benchmark to help us. I’ve found that on the days when it’s pouring with rain, it’s freezing cold and I really don’t want to get up for Mass, that my duty – to God, and to all of you as your curate – is what gets me going. I get up because I have to, but it keeps me ticking over.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Gimli the dwarf says that “sworn oath may strengthen quaking heart.” A duty, properly understood, doesn’t make us do anything, but rather it helps us to do it.
So what is our duty as Christians, in this year of 2021, amidst lockdowns and pandemic? What is our duty, to God, and to other people?
The same, I think, as it always has been – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
For the first, I think the letter from the Archbishops is still as true as ever – though of course we can’t come to church in person yet.
But we can follow the example of Christ in home and daily life, and to bear personal witness to Him.
We can be regular in private prayer day by day.
We can read the Bible carefully.
And how do we love our neighbour? Well, let us consider Captain Tom again – who looked within himself and asked, “What can I do?” And then, without making a fuss and without drawing attention to our efforts, we can get on with making a difference in our world.